Sprunt Lectures highlight modern urgency of Paul’s ancient letter to Romans

The Letter to the Romans gives voice to the apostle Paul’s conviction that “something has happened”—God has done something that changes things, freeing all humankind and the whole universe from potent anti-God forces and welcoming all people into God’s family. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, the 2016 Sprunt Lecturer, accented the timeliness of Paul’s message for our day in three lectures delivered to an enthusiastic audience of several hundred people gathered on the Richmond campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary May 9–11. Dr. Gaventa, Distinguished Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Baylor University and former Professor at Columbia Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary, is a prolific author and serves this year as president of the Society of Biblical Literature.

In her first lecture, Gaventa presented a challenge to read Romans with a sense of urgency, alert for the twists and turns in his argument, attentive to the way he leads his listeners to reconsider basic assumptions. We need to be confronted and challenged by the message of Romans.

A provocative second lecture claimed that “faith is not the answer,” because the problem is far larger than belief can “fix.” For Paul, sin and death are powerful “toxic twins” that enslave humanity. Inviting us to hear Romans alongside a first-century slave woman (such as Tryphena, perhaps), Gaventa suggested that she would “get” Paul’s emphasis on powers that dominate and enslave, from which God has freed us. And this is the audacious claim of the letter: God has acted in Christ to reclaim the world, setting humankind free from its enslavement (to sin and death) and giving us new identity as members of God’s family. This gift does not come to those who are worthy, or to persons with intellectual capacity, but to all. It is not about us or what we can do, but about God.

The concluding lecture named a persistent problem in human relations: we are prone to “other” people, depriving them of the dignity and worth we ascribe to “us.” Attention to Paul’s use of pronouns in Romans, however, prods readers to move from “them” to “us,” to embrace a unity-in-Christ that accepts difference—difference, though, that does not divide us from one another. With Paul’s help, we realize that we are “other” to God because of sin, yet God has restored us as members of God’s own beloved family. So we may take our place in a community that includes all. For all of us have been welcomed by divine grace: a message, indeed, that urgently needs attentive listeners in our day!

In keeping with Gaventa’s focus on the apostle Paul’s writing, the three-day series also included worship services with sermons on Paul’s letter to the Romans by Union Alumnus Gary W. Charles (D.Min.’80), pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

A portrait of the late Professor Samuel K. Roberts was unveiled in a special ceremony in the William Smith Morton Library atrium, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Church History Bill Sweetser (M.Div.‘89; Th.M.‘90; Ph.D.‘00) delivered a talk on his new book “A Copious Foundation,” which chronicles the 200-year history of the seminary.

John Carroll is the Harriet Robertson Fitts Memorial Professor of New Testament.